Saturday, January 21, 2012

I Heart British Cinematic Realism

In the last five years or so I have become a big fan of British cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the gritty "kitchen sink" realist films. Although I love the French New Wave films of the same era, something about seeing hearing north of England accents being spoken in a brick semi-detached gets my toes-a-tappin. Perhaps it's that American cinema, like American society in general, does not have a well-tuned ear for class difference. (And nobody does class like the Brits.)

Having spent a few summers working in a factory, I feel a certain kinship with Arthur Seaton, played by the great Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He works all week at a repetitive job that he hates, just so he can get the dough to blow on drunken weekends that consign the workweek to oblivion. (During my first six months in Michigan I pretty much did the same thing.) Arthur's watchwords? "Don't let the bastards grind you down."

In these films rebellion takes on a kind of nihilistic fatalism. Arthur might get drunk, but in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Colin Smith (played wonderfully by Tom Courtenay), deliberately loses a race that could propel him out of his repressive, dreary reform school. He'd rather lose on his own terms than win on those of his captors, a very self-destructive way to make a stance, and one familiar to those who have to make up in spite what they lack in power. These acts of resistance are hardly productive, and are certainly irrational, but they ring true to me. Human beings are petty, irrational, and defiant all at the same time, and when pushed we lash out in anger, and with little forethought.

In these films viewers get a strong whiff of what I call "working class fatalism." Although I grew up lower-middle class, my parents both came from working class backgrounds, and definately didn't lose their old fatalistic outlook on life. They knew in their bones that people in authority could never be trusted, and given the chance they'd squash you for a penny. The system couldn't be changed, it was unfair, the deck was stacked, and the outcomes preordained. The best thing to do is to keep your head down and your mouth shut and hope that the capricious powers that be don't single you out for a thrashing. (Although I only retained a glint of it, sometimes I wish I could muster this fatalism in a stronger form, its Stoicism can face down the worst that life can throw at you.) Sometimes the pressure gets to be too much, and that's when the Stoic mask falls and the fists fly. Those who carry this Weltanschauung know their rebellion will be ineffectual, but take heart in the very act of doing it as a validation that their spirit has not been completely crushed.

But sometimes life does not allow us even this consolation. This is the lesson taught by This Sporting Life, a film that touches on many of the same themes as The Wrestler. The main character, played by Richard Harris in a career making performance, goes from being a coal miner to a rugby player in a grubby Northern town. He gets a thousand pound bonus, a nice car, and a fur coat for his lady love. Rachel Roberts (one of the most underrated actresses in film history in my opinion) plays the latter, a widow too wrapped up in her self-loathing to be able to love a man too insecure to face life on his own. I don't think I've ever seen a more realistic portrayal on film of how self-hatred destroys human relationships. (Sadly, you can't love another person if you don't love yourself.)

She can't break free of her past, and he can't forget that despite all his money and notoriety, the well-born men who cheer him on think of him as a "great ape on a football pitch." When his face gets smashed in during a game, his employers won't spring to fix the damage to his mouth, he has to get six teeth pulled instead. By the end he is so trapped by the proverbial golden handcuffs that he can't even make a token rebellion, and his desperation for love only torments her with a burden that she can't possibly fulfill. It ain't a happy movie, but that's life.

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